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Dunedin:  Waiting... and Waiting

I spent a week in Dunedin waiting for the skies to clear so I could go out and explore the area, but the rain never quit.  I mean, seriously, in seven days it never once stopped.  So I made the best of it and consoled myself by perusing through my Lonely Planet guidebook, looking at the beautiful pictures of the Dunedin area, including the Otago Peninsula.  According to my guidebook, the peninsula is a lovely pastoral area east of the city, about 20 miles long.


After waiting several days for the rain to stop, I finally got fed up and drove out to the Otago Peninsula, but I didn't see much of anything except clouds and driving rain (there's that word again).  I kept referring to the pictures in my guidebook to see what it would've looked like if it was sunny.  Pretty pathetic, huh?


There's an albatross colony out on the Otago Peninsula, though, which was interesting.  Albatrosses are large seabirds that fly thousands of miles each year during their migrations, farther than just about any bird in the world.  They nest only in a few places around the world, including here in New Zealand, and they're absolutely HUGE.  Imagine a seagull literally the size of a turkey and you'll get the idea – and not one of those scrawny turkeys your Aunt Mabel serves for Thanksgiving.  No, I'm talking about a 24-pound self-basting Butterball.  Seeing one of these humongous birds up close and in person, I finally understood the term, "Like an albatross around my neck."  And then, for some reason, I started thinking about cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.


Speaking of rain, this song was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  These are The Irish Rovers singing about The Unicorn.


I went into downtown Dunedin several times during my sodden week there and strolled along George Street, the main thoroughfare, while wandering through many of the small stores and shops.  Despite being soaked, Dunedin was really hopping, this being the middle of the six-week summer holiday.  I drove down to the train station one afternoon to take the four-hour scenic train ride through the Taieri Gorge, something like the famous Durango-Silverton train ride in Colorado.  However, the train was just about full and I didn't think I'd enjoy sitting on a cramped and steamy train in an aisle seat. 


Instead, I got some fish and chips from a nearby takeout, went back to my motel room, flipped on the TV and watched the New Zealand Black Caps cricket team play Australia.  Even though the Kiwis lost, eating fish and chips while watching cricket was so much more enjoyable, I decided, than being packed like a sardine on a crowded train.


One of my main goals in Dunedin was to visit Baldwin Street, which I'd read about in my Lonely Planet guidebook.  In fact, other than the rain and the albatrosses, the thing I'll probably remember most about Dunedin is Baldwin Street, which is reputedly the steepest street in the world.  My photos on this page don't do it justice, unfortunately. 


I drove out to Baldwin Street one rainy afternoon (of course – what other kind?) and when I turned the corner and saw it, my jaw dropped.  I didn't have the nerve to drive my Corolla up the street because I wasn't sure if it would make it – or if the brakes would work well enough on the way back down – so I parked my car and walked up to the top.  During my short hike up the street I had to stop twice to catch my breath.  I hope the folks who deliver newspapers and mail here get big tips.



Above left:  This is what Dunedin looked like during the week I was there.  The rain gave me a chance, though, to update my website and return e-mails.

Above center:  The Railway Station, still in use, is the most beautiful building in Dunedin.

Above right:  This is inside the Railway Station.  I was going to take a scenic all-day rail trip from here, but the train was packed.



Above left:  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Baldwin Street in Dunedin, with its 35% slope, is the steepest street in the world.  

Above center:  Jeez, don't people here know how to build houses? They're all slanted!

Above right:  Just foolin'.  Actually, this is what the houses on Baldwin Street look like.  Cars have to get a running start before they drive up the street.



Above left:  Visiting soggy George Street, the main thoroughfare in Dunedin.

Above right:  And the soggy Otago University.  Folks told me that this creek is normally just a trickle.

Green Acres, New Zealand Style

After waiting for a week in sopping wet Dunedin, I finally decided to leave in search of sunnier climes.  As I was checking out of the Acadian Motel, the friendly owner apologized profusely for the weather and assured me that Dunedin is actually a wonderful city, which I told her it seemed to be.  Hopefully I'll see the "real" Dunedin the next time I visit New Zealand. 


Why Square Photos?

        If you've been following my website, you'll notice something different on this page:  my photos are now square instead of rectangular. 

        In an earlier entry I mentioned the problem I was having with my Canon D-30 digital camera.  Over the last many months, dirt had accumulated on my camera's sensor, leaving spots on my photos.  I tried cleaning the sensor when I was in Dunedin but it actually made things worse. 

        However, by cropping out the left part of each photo, I can still post digital photos on my website.  As a result, you'll notice that my photos are now square. 

        Incidentally, after my digital camera problems in Dunedin, I decided to buy a Canon film camera (along with 40 rolls of film) so that I'll have nice photos of New Zealand for my personal collection.  As a result, I'm now walking around New Zealand with TWO cameras draped around my neck (along with my camcorder).  Jeez, what a tourist, huh?!


I continued heading south that morning and drove through an area on the southeastern coast known as the Catlins, which is one of the most remote places in New Zealand.  There aren't a lot of people in the Catlins and the highway becomes a dirt road (or "unsealed" road, as they call it here).  Since my car isn't insured on unsealed roads, I was a little apprehensive about driving through the Catlins, but the road is pretty wide and there wasn't a lot of traffic, so I didn't have any trouble.  I'd been dealing with a lot of crowds all through New Zealand for the previous month, so the remote Catlins were a nice break and, probably for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real New Zealand.


The sun finally emerged late that afternoon (yay!) as I pulled into Invercargill (pop. 50,000), a farming city on the very southern tip of the South Island and about as far south as you can drive in New Zealand.  Just like the Dakotas in the U.S., Invercargill is the butt of a lot of jokes in New Zealand because it's a rural area and there are numerous farms in this area – definitely life in the slow lane.  A few days earlier, I had talked to some adventure-seeking twenty-somethings and when I mentioned that I was going to Invercargill, they just said:  "Why?"


Here's the theme song of the 1960's comedy TV series, Green Acres.  Those younger than about 30 have probably never seen this show (lucky you).


Invercargill was a nice change of pace, though, because every city that I'd visited in New Zealand up until now boasted a myriad of adrenalin-pumping experiences, including jet-boat rides, white-water rafting, hang-gliding, bungy-jumping, sea-kayaking, and a lot of other hyphenated thrill activities which can whittle down your wallet in no time flat.  The most exciting things to do in Invercargill, on the other hand, were visiting the Southland Museum (which I did) and walking around the beautiful downtown area (which I also did).  More than any other place I've visited yet in New Zealand, Invercargill reminded me of a large Midwestern farm town, something like a Bismarck or Wichita, which was all the more reason to like it.


I admit that Invercargill isn't very exciting, but it seemed pretty down-to-earth and the residents take life a little slower than elsewhere in New Zealand.  During my two days there, I got a good feeling for the place and, although it's the antithesis of all those New Zealand action-adventure towns, I liked Invercargill a lot.  The thrill-seekers can have Queenstown or Wanaka, as far as I'm concerned.  I'll take Invercargill any day.



Above left:  After a week of rain, I left Dunedin and headed south.  This is Nugget Point on the southeastern coast of the South Island.  As the name implies, it's a real nugget.

Above center:  Driving across the Catlins, probably the most remote part of New Zealand.

Above right:  Only four million people live in this country but there are 48 million sheep.  I think I've seen most of them.



Above left:  Invercargill is about as far south as you can go in New Zealand.  With lots of farmland nearby and countless John Deere tractors, it feels like a Midwestern city.  And, like a lot of Midwestern cities, there isn't a whole lot to do in Invercargill.  But maybe that's why I liked it.

Above center:  The Southland Museum in Invercargill is the best museum I've visited so far in New Zealand.

Above right:  I stopped at a seafood market in Invercargill and got some great fish and chips.  Is there any other kind?



Above left:  This is literally the end of the road.  This signpost is in Bluff, a few miles south of Invercargill and as far south as you can drive in New Zealand.

Above center:  A surfer dude along the highway.

Above right:  The sausage capital of New Zealand?  This is my kind of town!



Above left:  Slowly navigating my way through a few more of those 48 million sheep.

Above center:  Monkey Island on the southern coast, where I was introduced to New Zealand's notorious biting sandflies.  Ouch, ouch, ouch...

Above right:  The Clifden suspension bridge, built in the 1800s.

The (Doubtful) Sound of Silence

With my website all caught up, I left Invercargill around 9 a.m. on an overcast morning and headed north to Te Anau (pronounced "Tay ANN-ow," population 2,000), a bustling summer resort town and the activity hub of Fiordland, a beautiful area of southwestern New Zealand with lots of, well, fiords.  A fiord (spelled "fjord" in other parts of the world) is a glaciated valley that's been submerged by the sea.  There are lots of fiordish things to do in this area during the summer months, such as fiord cruises and fiord aerial sightseeing. 


Above:  The Fiordland National Park Visitor Center in Te Anau.

You can also go hiking, or "tramping" as they call it in New Zealand, on two of the most famous trails in the country, if not the world:  the Milford and Routeburn tracks.   This idea appealed to me because I love backpacking.  I've gone on overnight backpacking trips in the U.S. since I was seven years old and spent several years working as a wilderness ranger and firefighter in the Colorado Rockies when I was in my 20s.  So the idea of doing some serious backpacking in New Zealand intrigued me.


But then I did some research and learned that, while these two trails are supposed to be spectacular, they're also immensely popular.  In fact, you need to make reservations months in advance just to hike on them – and even then, your itinerary is strictly regimented.  You can't even camp on these trails, as I learned.  Instead, you have to stay in communal huts and can spend only one night in each hut, no matter how bad the weather is.  "Move along, move along," seems to be the mantra.


These kinds of Disneyland regulations are essential, I'm sure, given the popularity of the trails.  However, they don't appeal to me.  In addition, the idea of sharing a hut with 25 people whom I don't know, some of whom are drying their wet socks and underwear above my head as I lie in my sleeping bag, doesn't really float my boat.  Staying in New Zealand's tramping huts, according to the guidebooks, is a good way to meet people.  But I usually go backpacking to get AWAY from people.


Hiking, therefore, was out of the picture for this solitary recluse.  And I'm too cheap to go aerial sightseeing.  But I really wanted to do the fiord cruises, since I'd heard a lot of good things about them, so cruise I did.  I spent three days in Te Anau and took a cruise on Doubtful Sound one day and a cruise on Milford Sound the next.  They were two very different cruises and I'm glad I did each.


Doubtful Sound was named in 1770 by Captain James Cook during his exploration of New Zealand, on the first of his three voyages through the Pacific.  I mentioned before that Cook, an irrepressible, fearless and admirable British navigator, was the first European to explore New Zealand, 130 years after the islands were "discovered" by the Dutchman, Abel Tasman.  Maoris had been living in New Zealand since about 1200 A.D., then Tasman bumped into the islands in 1642 and named them after the Zeeland province of the Netherlands.  Tasman didn't explore much of New Zealand, though, leaving that honor to Captain Cook over a century later.  As Cook approached the narrow sound on his ship, the H.M.S. Discovery, he decided not to enter it because the prevailing wind direction made him doubtful that, once inside the sound, he would be able to leave.


Doubtful Sound today is still difficult to get to – in fact, I had to take an all-day trip to get out to it.  First, our group rode a boat across a lake for an hour, then we hopped on a bus and rode down to the sound, where we boarded another boat to cruise through the sound.  After a spectacular three-hour cruise on Doubtful Sound, we repeated the whole procedure in reverse to get back to Te Anau.  It sounds complicated but it was definitely worth it.


Above:  I stayed at the Alpenhorn Motel during my three nights in Te Anau and highly recommend it.  I had several nice long talks with Tony, the friendly owner.

The best part of the Doubtful Sound cruise was when the captain nudged the boat right up to the edge of a precipitous cliff that plunged straight down into the water.  He cut the boat's engines and asked everyone to be quiet.  For the next three minutes, everyone stood still and we enjoyed what the captain called “The Sound of Silence,” hearing – not Simon and Garfunkel – but only the seagulls crying and the water dripping off the cliffs from three hundred feet above.


The only bad thing about the cruise on Doubtful Sound was the group of a dozen or so retired Americans who came along.  Some of them were nice but the a few were your typical and much-dreaded "Ugly Americans" – very loud, rude, whining, and obnoxious.


The 50ish woman whom I had the misfortune to sit next to on the bus ride back got agitated about a single sandfly that was flying around inside the bus.  With a sadistic smile, she took out a can of insect repellent and proceeded to empty the entire contents of the can inside the hermetically-sealed bus.  I don’t know if the sandfly bit the dust, but several tourists on the bus nearly did and you could hear the coughing and wheezing all the way to Invercargill.  That group of Americans was something else, and being the only other American on board, I felt like putting a sign around my neck saying, "I'm not with them."


Other than that, it was a terrific cruise and I had a great time.  We didn't see any other boats during our cruise on Doubtful Sound and the experience was quite memorable.  So if you ever get a chance to see it, don’t be doubtful like Captain Cook.  Go for it.



Above left:  On the beautiful drive from Invercargill to Te Anau in southwestern New Zealand.

Above right:  Sunset on Lake Te Anau, the second-largest lake in New Zealand.



Above left:  I spent a few days in Te Anau.  While I was there, I took a day-long cruise to Doubtful Sound.  Actually it's a four-part trip all crammed into eight hours, with Part One being a boat ride across Manapouri Lake.

Above center:  Cruising across beautiful Manapouri Lake in the morning.

Above right:  Part Two is a bus ride down to Doubtful Sound.  The sound is on the Tasman Sea, which separates New Zealand from Australia.



Above left:  Part Three is a cruise on Doubtful Sound.  Captain Cook named this sound in the 1770s because, due to the winds, he was doubtful that he could sail back out of it, so he never entered.

Above center:  Majestic fog-draped cliffs above Doubtful Sound.

Above right:  At the end of Doubtful Sound, there's a seal colony on some rocks in the Tasman Sea.  Next stop, Australia.



Above left:  The skipper during our "three-hour cruise" – just like on Gilligan's Island.  But where's Ginger?

Above center:  Part Four of our trip was a visit to the hydroelectric plant that links Lake Manapouri with Doubtful Sound.

Above right:  This is a diagram of the hydroelectric plant, with Lake Manapouri on the left.  Our bus took us down in a tunnel (the yellow line) hundreds of feet below the surface.  I enjoyed the tunnel ride almost as much as the cruise on the sound.



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